Big Idea

The Big Idea: Robin C. M. Duncan

Writers often use what they experience in their lives in their fiction; for Robin C.M. Duncan, a particular medical issue gave him an insight that informed his novel The Mandroid Murders. What was it and how did it have an impact on the writing? Read on.


I began writing my novel The Mandroid Murders in 2016, with the emergence of my main characters from a “Writing Excuses” writing prompt about a dead-drop from three different viewpoints. The novel’s main theme materialised from recent changes I observed in my behaviour, but I could not have known then how that choice of theme presaged a traumatic personal event.

The interface between humans and their technology has defined the development of Humankind, and its impact on the Earth, for millennia. From rocks to rockets to microprocessors, tool use remains humanity’s driving force. The question of how far and where that might take us has exercised Science Fiction writers for over a hundred years, but my interest is less about how those tools affect the world (a dire and depressing subject), but how their use affects the user, and the user’s much older and more spiritual interface with the physical realm.

As human tools have become increasingly complex, arguably, the scope of their impact on the psyche has increased. Recent research demonstrating a dramatic reduction in attention spans appears to have been debunked, but I believe there is still ample proof that our smartphones do disrupt our relationship with the physical world. I believe this simply because that is what those devices are designed to do, to insinuate themselves between us and whatever is in front of us, be it a person across a dinner table, the physical book we are reading, or yes, even our TV or computer screen.

This infiltration of our psyche is achieved by tactile, auditory and visual means, sometimes all three at once, and each time we succumb to the lure, we receive the reward of a screen free of little red notification dots, and a smack of dopamine from the app in question. However, this is at the cost of our physical interactions, our social relations, our attention spans (I would continue to argue), and our sleep. But, what if our consciousness became part of the machine itself, with all physical filters and barriers removed? What impact might there be then on the human psyche and our ability to interact with the real world; how might any given consciousness react when physical accountability is removed?

As the title of my novel suggests, androids play a big part in my vision of Earth in 2099. These droids (proprietary name, syRen®) are somewhat Asimovian, operating broadly under his laws of robotics, although supplemented by technical bureaucracy, and with what I call pseudo-AI, not “full” AI. While Virtual Reality enables humans to see through android eyes, and experience their actions, Androicon develops technology to put human consciousness into an android, enabling a human to operate it. Because that’s bound to be a good idea, right?

The story follows the trail of Gregor Callan, a quadriplegic, who volunteers to participate in Androicon’s testing of their new tech. Callan was paralysed in a terra-forming accident. Synaptic Mapping (the tech in question) enables him to experience the physical freedom that most of us take for granted, but when the link to his body is severed, Callan finds he is no longer accountable to his physical form. There are signs that he was unbalanced even before his original accident, but the chip on his virtual shoulder is given freedom to roam, and the consequences are less than optimal, shall we say: private detective Quirk is called in to find Callan and stop him.

Callan’s viewpoint is one of increasing dissociation with the world and the people around him. He is in a desperate situation to begin with, but, on escaping his damaged body, finds that he needs something else to cling to, an imperative beyond mere physical survival. The course that Callan’s psyche draws him down has severe implications for the settlement of Lunaville. The story is not intended as an exploration of what it means to be human, but more what it means to be accountable to society. How would an individual behave if that accountability was withdrawn, if—in their mind at least—it evaporated? To some extent we are in The Invisible Man territory here, although there are limitations on the antagonist’s ability to roam at will through an unsuspecting population, all the while becoming increasingly more detached from it. But how does this relate to my own traumatic event?

In April 2021 I had my first COVID vaccination. Shortly afterwards, I began to lose sensation in my hands and feet, and my mobility decreased alarmingly quickly. I was admitted to hospital in June. At the point of treatment starting I could not support my own bodyweight, nor feel much of anything from feet to knees, in the groin, rear and stomach, in my hands and or in my mouth. I was diagnosed with Guillain Barré Syndrome*. In a nutshell, the immune system attacks the nervous system, destroying the nerves. It’s a very treatable condition if caught early enough, but the effects are unbelievably scary. Thankfully, I improved immediately upon treatment starting, and have since regained 95% of mobility and nerve function (Stoopid feets!). I feel very fortunate: some are far more debilitated, can be completely paralysed; the condition can be fatal. The care I had, and still have, from Britain’s National Health Service is amazing, and I will be forever grateful to live in a country with a public healthcare system.

Okay, I did not go “the full Callan”, but this event put a great deal in perspective for me, and afforded me a lot of time to consider how I interface with the world. I was, quite literally, able to feel the grass beneath my feet again. Hours of physio strengthened my ability to walk effectively, I regained stamina, I felt in touch with the world again. What it must be to lose that connection permanently does not bear thinking about. My episode reminded me how important it is for us to treasure our connection to the physical world, which is doing its best to nurture us, despite Humankind’s persistent depredation of our one and only home, in the name of narrowminded corporate objectives (another theme of my novel). So, remember to feel the grass beneath your feet, to treasure your loved-ones, to marvel at and respect the world around you; do not take these things for granted. They are all finite.

*Sometime later, after a relapse in October 2021, my diagnosis was updated to one of Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), a chronic form of GBS.

The Mandroid Murders: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Athena Scalzi

Trying Out A New Recipe: Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bread

My grandma keeps giving me zucchinis from her garden the size of toddlers, so I’ve been trying out zucchini recipes lately! Recently, I tried Dessert For Two’s Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bread. I’ve been following this food blogger for a couple years now, but never tried out anything by her, so I was excited to give this one a shot.

For the ingredients, I’d say everything is pretty standard, the only things you may not really have on hand is nutmeg and chocolate chips, and of course the zucchini.

Everything started out really well. I mixed together the butter, sugar, and honey:

Then I added the eggs, and it was time to squeeze the water out of the zucchini.

I’ve never handled zucchini before, so I thought that paper towels would be enough. It was not.

After the zucchini immediately soaked the paper towels, the paper towel busted open and my zucchini threatened to fall into the sink.

I tried the method again with way more paper towels, and the same thing happened. I figured that that was good enough, and put the zucchini into the batter (it was not good enough). I also added the cinnamon, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg.

My batter ended up looking like this:

I’d never made zucchini bread before, but even I could tell that something was not right.

At this point, I thought for sure it was so liquid-y because I didn’t squeeze enough water out of the zucchini. But there’s no way that the water in the zucchini alone could do this much damage, right?

I knew I couldn’t put it in the oven like this. So I tried to strain it. HORRIBLE IDEA.

As you can see, tons of batter fell out in my attempt to separate it from the liquid. I transferred what was left of the batter into the loaf pan, which ended up getting a bunch of batter on my floor as I carried it from the sink (I am not the brightest).

I threw it in the oven in frustration and hoped for the best.

I did not get the best.

I could not figure out how I had fucked this up so badly. I sat there and contemplated for awhile, looked over the recipe again and again, and couldn’t determine what went wrong.

So, I decided to retry, and this time, I was going to squeeze ALL THE WATER OUT.

The first couple steps went just as swimmingly as the first time around, and this time I got a clean kitchen towel instead of paper towels to wring these bitch ass zucchini shreds out.

I added the zucchini in, and then added in cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, baking soda, and… flour.

My hand stopped as it scooped the measuring cup into the flour. I had forgotten the flour in the first loaf. Two whole cups of it.

I felt so silly, but relieved to know that it was such a fixable error. Finally, I had some good-looking batter!

(I took a picture of the batter before I added the chocolate chips, but you can see them in the loaf pan.)

(I also took a picture of the batter in the loaf pan before I added the chocolate chips on top, but you can see them when it comes out.)

I did it! Apparently flour makes a world of difference.

I still had some zucchini left, so I decided to make another loaf, since the first one hadn’t turned out.

As you can see, the batter looks exactly the same.

But for some reason, it came out looking a little odd. I didn’t put chocolate chips all over the top of this one, so I figured maybe that was why it looked off.

I let it cool for a while, and saw the top collapsed. I cut into it, only to find that it wasn’t baked through.

I was miffed. Why did it turn out different when I had made it the exact same way? I just repeated the exact same process that gave me a good loaf, so what had happened here? I threw it away and called it quits on bread making for the night.

As for the loaf the did turn out, I thought it was kind of meh. It was on the dry side, and just not as good as zucchini bread I’ve had in the past. But it was good enough with butter spread on it, at least.

All in all, it’s not the worst baking failure I’ve ever had.

Do you like zucchini? How about in bread form? Do you have a good recipe for it? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Naseem Jamnia

When the odds are stacked against you, life can feel pretty overwhelming. Author Naseem Jamnia gives us a look into a world with a protagonist who has more than their fair share of hardships. Follow along in their Big Idea for their newest novel, The Bruising of Qilwa.


I frequently rant about the need for New Adult as an age group in books. Not because I don’t think current millennial experiences are worth having in the adult section—I do—but because in the U.S. and certain other parts of the world, adolescents move into emerging adulthood after high school and into their 20s, trying to navigate the world as people who are technically adults but don’t necessarily always feel like one, what with the instability of the job market, the housing market, the economy as a whole, and figuring out whether marriage and family and all that works for them. Having a category of books that point to those ideas as a central concern is helpful.

But maybe this is less about New Adult and more about being a millennial. 

The Bruising of Qilwa is a deeply millennial book. It’s set in a secondary world, but it’s about a 30-year-old refugee healer who is stretched thin working at a too-busy clinic for too-little pay, being a caregiver to their brother and the orphan they find on the streets (let alone their elderly mother, with whom they often clash), fighting the government’s medical racism against fellow refugees, solving the mysteries of a magical plague—and oh, by the way, the orphan they find needs to be magically trained lest she hurts those around her, and their brother is trying to medically transition but needs the main character to create the spell to do so.

So sure, The Bruising of Qilwa is a secondary world fantasy, but I wrote it from a place of millennial exhaustion, and it shows.

The main crux of the novella came from a question I’ve been asking myself as a child to Iranian immigrants: what does it mean to be oppressed when you were once an oppressor? The main character, Firuz, is a refugee to the city-state of Qilwa, but they’re a member of a Persian-inspired ethnic group that colonized Qilwa centuries ago, and I wanted to explore this dynamic. This is a complex question, and I spend my author’s afterword on it in the book. But I really didn’t give enough credit to how much my generation’s struggles informed the course The Bruising of Qilwa takes. 

I was born in 1991; I turn 31 a week after Qilwa hits shelves. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the rise of home WiFi and the downfall of dial-up; I was on MySpace and knew Facebook when you had to be invited; I got my first smart phone in my third year of college. I remember the fears around Y2K and the joys of snap bracelets and how my hometown Chicago’s Bean looked before it was sanded smooth. But I also sat sobbing on a couch in November 2016 and made the decision to leave my neuroscience PhD program to write full-time, because even though any marginalized person can tell you the US has never been kind to us, I knew it was going to get much, much worse. 

I hate that we’ve been proven right almost every day since then, culminating (thus far) in the June 24th Supreme Court decision.

I started writing The Bruising of Qilwa not in response to any of the crises we’ve faced in recent years—it wasn’t in response to anything at all. Or so I thought: in the interim time between originally drafting the book and it coming out, our society has gone through COVID (which disproportionately affects Black and brown people), locked Latine children in cages, granted white Ukrainian migrants asylum while brown and Black ones are not, claimed outrage at more incidents of police brutality against Black people without meaningful change, refused to prevent continued mass shootings, allowed increased murders of trans people (particularly Black trans women), pushed through anti-queer and anti-trans legislation especially targeting children, ignored worsening effects of the climate crisis—

How could that not have, on some level, impacted my writing?

I say The Bruising of Qilwa is a deeply millennial novella because I am constantly worrying about all of these problems and feel helpless to address them, and Firuz often feels the same way. When they finally manage to move their family out of the migrant slums after the first year they’re in Qilwa, Firuz feels nagging guilt at all the migrants they left behind. As Firuz works long hours and starves themself to make sure their family is fed, they feel crushing anxiety about the migrants who die in food riots, whose children don’t have access to education, whose only advocate is a single standing free clinic fighting a government trying to crack down on who has access to affordable healthcare. Firuz’s exhaustion is on every page of The Bruising of Qilwa; their desire to be a good caregiver to their brother, a good teacher to their ward, a good clinician to their patients, and a good assistant to their mentor at the clinic all battle for space. 

I, too, am tired. I don’t have the good reasons Firuz does, but maybe I needed to give Firuz all of those reasons in order to justify my own constant anxiety. Maybe the only way I could explain why so many millennials are disillusioned and jaded and frustrated was by creating a protagonist who tries so hard but never feels enough because of the systems in place against them. Maybe the only way I could process the garbage dumpster fire our world continues to be was to create a magical one that has it bad in other (but related) ways.

But for all the tragedy and difficulty that unspools in its pages, The Bruising of Qilwa ends on a hopeful note. And maybe that’s something else I had to give myself and others, too: a chance that we can make things better, even if it’s slow. Even if it feels impossible. Even without magic, I have to hope that, like Firuz, we can all help make things better for the most marginalized of us.

The Bruising of Qilwa: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt here. Visit the author’s site. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram

Athena Scalzi

Final Day In Atlanta

And really, it was only half a day because I spent almost ten hours driving home. But in that first half of the day, I went to the World of Coca-Cola! So this post is more or less only a review over that.

Before I get started, I just want to preface by saying I don’t even like Coke. I dislike the taste of cola in general. I’m a black sheep in my Coke-addicted family. I’m really more a Sprite gal. I do like root-beer (not Barq’s) and Dr. Pepper, though.

Though I walked to the aquarium the other day, I did not walk to World of Coca-Cola because I had checked out of my hotel and was leaving for home straight from World of Coca-Cola, so I drove and parked in their parking garage for twenty dollars.

Entering was a super easy process. They take photos upon walking in but you can just say you don’t want a photo and walk right through, where you’ll find a large room filled with dozens of screens displaying Coca-Cola being poured into glasses with ice.

You’ll be asked to wait in this room until the timer next to the door for the next room is up, then you shuffle with everyone else into a room full of Coca-Cola memorabilia, merch, and vintage ads called The Loft. There was a presenter dressed in a costume of all red at the front, and he told us a bunch of facts about the founding of Coca-Cola and the creation of it and all that, as we waited for another timer to end so we could enter the next room, which was called the Coca-Cola theater.

The theater played a six minute video over how “Coca-Cola is a part of so many moments in peoples’ lives, big and small.” The video showed people at birthday parties, people proposing, people having a good time and drinking Coca-Cola from glass bottles. Classic stuff, really. Nothing we haven’t all seen a million times before.

After you exit the theater you’ll find yourself in the hub of the museum. It’s big and bright and full of giant Coca-Cola bottles with funky designs. From here there’s a few different exhibits you can enter. There’s a room called The Vault which is all about the secret formula of Coke, a place to take pictures with the mascot, the Polar Bear (though apparently there’s only certain times of the day he’s out and available for photos), a section where you can see how the bottling process works, and of course the big attractions such as the tasting room.

I decided to go into the “Pop Culture” section first, as I totally loved The Loft and all the vintage stuff and wanted to see more of that kind of thing.

They had a whole wall of the classic Santa Claus style ads, which I thought was really neat:

There was lots of home decor that was Coca-Cola themed, like a lamp that looked like it could’ve been Tiffany’s. There was also a signed poster of someone from American Idol drinking a Coke, next to a red and white couch that apparently was sat on by American Idol stars? I’m not entirely sure. Behind glass there was items such as Coca-Cola Checker sets, old fashioned bottles, and animal statues made out of shredded up Coke cans.

There was also a display of these super awesome bottles with styles from Chinese artists:

(You can actually see the American Idol stuff I mentioned in the reflection of the glass.)

It was a relatively small section, so I moved on to the exhibit next to called Scent Discovery. This was a dark, very open room, with several different sniffing stations for you to smell scents at.

Other than fruity, there was also spicy and sweet. The sweet smelled just like cotton candy, or basically just sugar. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in this room other than sniff the three smells and move on, so I did! To the tasting room!

This room was basically the final stop before the gift shop, and once you entered the gift shop there was no re-entry to the rest of the museum.

I grabbed a cup and starting making my rounds of the drink stations, which are basically like soda machines at a fast food place:

I got through the station pictured above, and then about halfway through the second station when suddenly the fire alarm went off. Everyone shuffled into one big crowd and meandered towards the emergency exit, but a lot of us kept being held up by people that were stopping to fill their cups with soda and then proceed to stand there and drink them. It was a real “bruh” moment.

So once everyone exited the building we were all instructed to wait on the grass.

I figured it would be a while before we could go back in, so I headed over to the Bottle Cap Cafe (in the background on the right) before anyone else got the bright idea to wait it out there. Sure enough, after I got in the relatively small line, about a dozen people got in line behind me and the line ended up going out the door. Though, it was a pretty small place on the inside, so it’s not like a line out the door is saying much considering the lack of room inside.

Anyways, I ordered a pesto flatbread for eleven dollars, and a mini flight of floats for fourteen dollars.

Here’s the flatbread:

It actually wasn’t half bad. It was kind of on the luke-warm side but meh, no big deal. Also, I expected the chicken to be dry as fuck but it wasn’t at all!

As for the mini floats, this was the photo of it:

And this was what I got:

Lil’ bit of false advertising to be certain. Not that I care, really. Obviously having it all be throw-away items makes it easier on the workers, which is important. But it was definitely not what I expected. It came with root-beer, Coke, Cherry Coke, Sprite, Grape Fanta, and Orange Fanta. For me the only thing worth drinking was the root-beer float, since I don’t like cola, hate grape soda, and don’t want ice cream in my Sprite.

So why did I order it, you may be wondering? Well I thought it was an interesting menu option with a cool presentation, and thought it would be neat to try out and document. But the presentation was obviously not the cool version, so it made for much less of an interesting photo-op for the blog. Ah, well.

Moving on, as I was finishing eating, they started letting people back into the museum, so I waltzed over there only to find a ginormous crowd waiting to get back in through the front. Not only were the letting the original people back in, but also selling tickets and having those new people enter at the same time. I didn’t want to waste my time going through the presentations again, especially with such a huge line, so I snuck off to the backside of the building where the gift shop exit was.

There was a security guard standing inside the exit doors, and when I walked up he opened the door for me and let me in. I was astonished that that actually worked out for me. So, I had made it back into the gift shop, the place where there was no re-entry to the rest of the museum. Time for me to buy my shit and leave.

I am sad that I missed out on the rest of the sodas I didn’t get to taste. I was especially excited to try Inca Kola. But at least I got back in without having to go through a giant crowd and everything.

Anyways, the gift shop was huge, and I bought way too much shit I don’t need. I have no idea why, but I have always loved Coca-Cola merch, and now I finally get to own some!

Of course, I got some super cool glasses:

Each one was between five and ten bucks.

I got this nifty vintage-style metal poster for fifteen:

This vintage vending machine style piggy bank for ten dollars:

I also got way more tops than I need, each one between thirty and sixty dollars:

(They are all super wrinkly from being stuffed into a gift bag and traveling.)

Of course I had to get a pin for my collection (it was the last one!):

And a postcard!

Finally, at checkout, the girl asked me if I wanted to add one of their mystery bag items, one for 3.99 and one for 5.99, and I got both:

One was a reusable straw kit:

The other was a pair of shoe laces:

So, yeah! That was basically all I did before I headed home.

Oh, and I grabbed a churro on the way back to my car from a food truck:

Or rather, I was going to get one, but they only came in a two-pack for nine dollars, and the guy in front of me bought the two-pack, turned to me and said “I only want one, do you want the other?” I said yes and he gave me the other churro for free! I told him to have a great day, and I hope he did.

And then I headed home! And it was super uneventful. A traffic jam here, a gas station stop there, and soon enough I was back in Ohio.

Do you like Coke? What’s your favorite variation? Do you agree Sprite is superior? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Sarah Henning

In author Sarah Henning’s third and final installment of her The Kingdoms of Sand & Sky novels, The King Will Kill You, we’re taken on a journey through what real change looks like, and are shown how it is both quick and slow at the same time.


I’m extremely lucky that this is my third time in three years sharing The Big Idea about my gender-swapped damsel-in-distress books—The Princess Will Save You (2020, Tor Teen) and The Queen Will Betray You (2021, Tor Teen).

The first time I was here, I wrote a post about turning the damsel and her tale on its collective head by engaging with the archetype in a way that makes a male character the “damsel” and the female character in the position of playing “savior” while dissecting the patriarchal framework that supports and reinforces the generations-old damsel trope.

Then, last summer, I was welcomed back to discuss The Queen Will Betray You and the double-edged sword of being an ambitious woman in a hyper-patriarchal world. To quote myself, “When men do these things—gamble, lie, cheat—as characters or even in real life, they are often lauded as clever, intelligent, savvy. When women do these things they are called wicked, nasty, a shrew. The difference that hangs between these descriptions is the scaffolding of the patriarchy. So hard to escape, impossible to change, weighted in the direction that it is.”

Lots of wicked, nasty, and perhaps shrew-like things happened in Queen regarding the four women in that book who could easily be called queens, all of them maneuvering either within the societal rules or outside of them to achieve the power they wield.

And, what happens when you finally get the power you want? At the beginning of The King Will Kill You, Amarande has everything she wanted the first two books. Thus, The Big Idea of this post is about the after—happily ever or, well, not.

What happens when you get everything you want on the surface in a world that’s both changed and not? In many stories, we never see this adjustment period. There’s the big climax and then things are tied up in a bow or maybe glossed over or referenced in an epilogue that skips ahead in time.

That’s because the after is not smooth. It’s equal parts pedestrian—the world is completely changed but you’re wearing the same clothes—and ugly. It’s the cleanup after a rollicking party, when you’re mopping up spilled wine in your dancing shoes at 2 a.m, rather than skipping ahead to the house looking perfect the next morning when brunch guests arrive, a flashback and a tired smile the only indication of the between.

To avoid spoilers, three of the four “queens” make it out of the second book, including our main character, Princess Amarande, who, because of a certain fall of events is set at the beginning of The King Will Kill You to finally and fully take control of the Kingdom of Ardenia as its first unwed queen. (Previously, she would’ve had to marry someone to access her birthright power…which seems incredibly unfair.) Along with her true love Luca, she’s ready and willing to shake up the archaic and misogynistic laws of the Kingdoms of The Sand and Sky, rewrite them, and modernize the continent for the better.

And the timing does seem perfect—every single kingdom in the continental union has a new leader. A huge crisis was just adverted at the end of Queen, and Amarande’s neighbors seem poised to work with her and Luca to make change. And though Luca is resurrecting the Kingdom of Torrence from the ashes and formally joins the union, which gives her a direct ally and means at least two of the five kingdoms will always be on the same page as they navigate the growing pains that will surely pop up with modernization, Amarande finds…the patriarchy does not die easily.

In fact, it doesn’t die at all. Not really.

This is both metaphorically and actually true in King for reasons I can’t explain without a big spoiler. However, I can discuss the fact that the status quo moves at a glacial pace, even when someone like Amarande is dead set on shoving it downhill. And so, despite all she’s been through and all the growth she’s endured, Amarande finds herself and her kingdom set back in unexpected ways.

It’s only been days, the dead are still being buried, and people in far-flung places on the continent are still finding out exactly what happened in the previous fortnight. To everyone but Amarande and Luca, their thirst for change is almost like whiplash. Their subjects ricochet from one extreme to another, and even so, in Luca’s case because there hasn’t been an approachable ruler in what is now again the Kingdom of Torrence in years, he suddenly hasn’t done enough, even as he engages with his people for the first time.

But that discomfort is nothing compared to Amarande’s stated goal of making the continent a better, fairer place for the people. She tries unprecedented communication with the common classes, providing transparency of what has happened in the past fortnight, because she understands that knowledge is power, and she believes the people—of her kingdom and all the kingdoms—deserve to hold that power. That does not sit well with the surviving old guard who do not believe the common man of any kingdom should see the ugliness of ruling peeled back. A very “you can’t handle the truth” situation, to put it mildly—and they believe Amarande to be naïve simply for sharing the information in the first place.

Then, there’s her goal of allowing women to rule without marriage and to make all heirs equal. Though the other kingdoms stand by and watch Amarande’s coronation, she soon learns they weren’t silent in support, they were silent because they were plotting—using her own ambition as a wedge to steal the kingdom out from under her. At every turn, Amarande’s positive movement toward change is checked against the boards by the patriarchy…until she figures out exactly how to move herself and her people forward to truly make for a happily ever after.

I hope you’ll check out Amarande’s journey now that it’s complete.

The King Will Kill You: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

Athena Scalzi

Day Three In Atlanta

My third day in Atlanta was Friday, and I was going to write it up on Saturday, but I drove home on Saturday, and now it is Sunday, so here is my slightly late third day!

I started the day as all days should start: with brunch. After debating between all the recommendations y’all provided in the comments, and some recommendations I saw online, I settled on a place called Poach Social. It was tucked away in a neighborhood outside the busy downtown of the city. The parking lot was small and enclosed by walls, painted with a bright mural.

Poach Social is found inside a small black building, but upon entering you’ll find a bright, open space with a neon yellow sign that reads “FOOD  + MOOD”, fake plants, and a wall painted black and white with a chevron pattern. It’s hip! Modern! All the things brunch places tote nowadays. The menu seems to be comprised of a bit of an upscale version of classic Southern foods. And lots of mimosas!

I ended up getting the French Toast.

It was brioche, with a lemon drizzle, berries, and powdered sugar. It came with a little cup of syrup and their Jamaican rum sauce, but I only used the syrup, as the rum sauce tasted too alcohol-y for my liking. It was totally scrumptious. It was also fifteen dollars, which is definitely the most I’ve ever paid for French Toast, but that’s city-livin’ for ya.

After that, I headed to Zoo Atlanta, which was right down the street from Poach Social. I’m still confused why it isn’t called the Atlanta Zoo, but maybe that’s just me.

Once I arrived, I found a parking lot much, much smaller than I had been expecting. We’re talking like three or four rows of parking. There was a sign that said the lot was full, so I wasn’t really sure what to do about that other than hope it was wrong and search for a spot anyways. Lo and behold, a spot! Which I totally only got because someone happened to be leaving right as I was coming down the aisle.

So, I got out and started walking towards the front, only to see a machine where to pay for your parking. I was miffed that I had to pay to park, especially because it’s pretty much the only parking option, since the surrounding area is pretty much totally residential. It was three dollars per hour to park, so I chose hourly pay, but then it wanted me to put in the number of hours. I didn’t know how long it would take me to get through the zoo, so I just chose “all-day” parking, which was twelve dollars. Which is about half the cost of the ticket, which was like thirty bucks. Seems like a lot to me.

Anyways, I finally entered the zoo!

Have you ever wanted to be depressed? Say no more and head straight to Zoo Atlanta! Upon entering, you’ll be greeted with the overwhelming, gag-inducing scent of piss. At first I thought I was just close to the restrooms by the entrance, but those were all the way across the main courtyard area that contained the gift shop, a place to buy drinks, and the restrooms.

I did actually go in them and it took me THREE TRIES before I went into a stall with a lock on it. Then, only one of the hand soap dispensers had any soap in it.

Moving on, I was ready to see some morally-questionable contained animals. First up was the rhino!

And there was no rhino. I figured it had to be in there somewhere, but after standing there for a few minutes there was definitely no sign of it, so I moved on to the meerkats.

And there were no meerkats.

For some reason there were rabbits next to the meerkats, but the only rabbits I saw were these weird statues?

Finally, I did see an animal. There were three elephants standing in their enclosure space.

There was huge building next to the enclosure (you can see it in the background of the above photo), and when I went in it was just a big glass window to view the elephants if they happened to be inside instead of outside. Here’s the view of the inside:

It just looked so… industrial. There was a screen playing a repeating video of all the different things the elephants had as “enrichment”. The video showed a ball on a string they could play with, a water trough they could drink from, and a few other things, but I wouldn’t really say any of them could really be considered “enrichment”.

After the elephants, I went through a section that contained some birds. The bird enclosures seemed a bit on the small side to me (as all zoo enclosures are), especially because they are arguably the most free animals in the world, and now they will only fly around the same fifteen foot box for the rest of their life.

There were definitely some interesting ones, though, like these yellow-faced guys.

Once I was done with the birds, the next area was a kids’ center, with a little train to ride around in, a splash-pad, a carousel, and a climbing adventure course called “Treetop Trail”. The parking lot was visible from this section and I remembered seeing the backside of the climbing thing from the front entrance area.

Each attraction cost a few bucks individually, or you can get a wristband for about ten bucks that gets you unlimited rides on the train and carousel. The Treetop Trail is fifteen dollars and not included with the wristband. I thought that price was pretty expensive, considering a kid’s ticket to the zoo is twenty dollars already, so if you have three kids and they all want to do the trail, you’re looking at a hundred dollars right there.

There was also this sad looking Birthday Party Pavilion:

It was all just so incredibly lackluster.

I didn’t stick around the kids’ area for very long and moved on to the Cloud Leopard, which is one of my favorite animals!

What you see here is just about the entirety of the enclosure. On the other side of the right wall was the tiger’s enclosure. It was also sleeping.

The pandas (all three of them) were also sleeping. For some reason the inside of the glass was wet, I’d guess from the humidity. I looked at the bios of the pandas and one was born in 1997. That was a year before I was born. This panda was literally older than me and was in captivity the entire time. It seems so wrong. This feeling only got worse when I saw the ages of the gorillas (one was born in 1976).

Moving on from the clearly depressed animals in small rooms, I came across this enclosure that I didn’t even realize was an enclosure until I happened to see a turtle inside.


There were a lot of initials and names carved into the bamboo that was all around the walking paths of the zoo. I saw this one and was confused at first why someone put a year that hasn’t happened yet.

I quickly realized what it meant and it’s super fucked up someone would do that into a STALK OF BAMBOO. Not even bamboo is safe from crazy ass fanatics.

The red panda was also sleeping.

The lions were also sleeping but we’re tucked away in a cave for shade.

After feeling like I’d seen just about all the sleeping animals I could take, I entered the reptile house. I thought it would be air conditioned inside, and it wasn’t, but at least it was out of the sun.

And I actually did find the reptiles super cool! They had tons of awesome snakes, and poison dart frogs, and an iguana. I like this lil’ guy:

I tried to take more pictures but the reflections of the glass really got in the way, but I did get one of this emerald tree boa, which is one of my favorite types of snakes:

And whatever this majestic creature is:

A quick side note (as by this point I had basically been through the entire zoo), I noticed tons of food and drink stands throughout the zoo, and every single one of them was closed.

This one was an alcohol stand so I can understand it being closed, but the food truck next to it was also closed.

Aside from the alcohol (which again, I can understand being closed) there were several of these “dippin’ dots”, snack, and drink stands throughout that were all also closed. The only food place I saw open was an actual restaurant the zoo has called “Nourish Cafe” by the pandas.

And to be clear, I was here at 12:30pm on a Friday. There were tons of families and people in general, so I didn’t understand why they’d choose not to have any drink stands open. I surely would’ve bought a water, at least.

Finally, I made it back to the front and went into the gift shop. The only thing I really wanted was a red panda plushie, but it was a hundred dollars, so I put it back. I exited the gift shop and left. I would not recommend Zoo Atlanta.

Clearly, I had a long, hard day of looking at sleeping animals, so I decided not to go out for dinner, and instead had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, which is called “Livingston Restaurant + Bar”.

The restaurant was in a huge room, and quite grand. There was tons of seating, and when I arrived it was completely empty. There was no staff in sight either, so I thought maybe it was closed, but a bartender came around the corner after just a moment. There were tall columns emitting light that were covered with a white mesh fabric to diffuse the light, and a huge chandelier. I found the most interesting thing to be the purple velvet couches.

I decided to start with the cheese board. I like to judge places pretty heavily on their cheese boards.

This one had two kinds of meat, salami and what I thought was prosciutto but it didn’t really taste like prosciutto to me. The board also had four kinds of cheeses, though I should’ve taken a better picture because you can only see two, maybe three of them. Underneath the crackers are the two you can’t really see, one being a blue cheese. The other one was white and semi-firm with a dark red rind. The two visible ones are gouda and cheddar. I quite enjoyed all of the cheeses. The mustard was a dark ale mustard so it was especially strong and could only be handled in small doses. The pickled okra was something I’d never encountered before, but it tasted exactly like a normal dill pickle. And I always love honeycomb.

I didn’t get through much of this before my entree came; the teriyaki chicken lollipops.

The bartender told me that the chef must’ve been in a good mood, because he gave me an extra piece. I thought that was nice of him.

Unfortunately, I could not even come close to eating these. Before biting into them, I sampled the sauce, and my mouth was immediately on fire. I didn’t realize they’d be spicy! It said teriyaki! That’s usually a really great flavor in my book! Obviously, I’d never ask to be comped for something that is too spicy for me (because I am a baby about spice), so I told the bartender that I wanted to order something else but would keep the chicken.

So here we have the burger:

And I actually really liked it! It was cooked just how I asked, and I found the potato bun to be interesting. I will say that the fries were totally bangin’. They were super hot, crispy, overall very fresh fries.

I asked if they had a dessert menu and the bartender said there were no desserts. I figured that was for the best since I was full anyways.

The bartender also told me that this place used to have “real upscale food, steak and scallops and whatnot”, and ever since COVID they reduced their menu to basically just burgers and chicken sandwiches. I would’ve liked to try it when it was like he said it used to be.

To end my day, I went and saw Nope at a nearby AMC theater. I got an Icee and it was almost eight dollars. I was shocked and appalled, but sacrifices must be made for my red Icee.

The theater was totally packed, which is not what I’m used to. Usually when I go to the movies I’m the only one in the theater. Thankfully, it was one of those places where you buy your ticket and reserve your seat ahead of time, so I already had a seat picked out.

However, someone was in my seat. I told her “I think you’re in my seat” and she scooted one over.

This girl was on a phone call the entire movie. She had her earbuds in so she was talking through the microphone on those, and her phone wasn’t up to her ear. She was actually holding her phone, and on it a ton, and had flashing notifications on, so every time she got a notification, the flashlight on her phone went off several times.

She didn’t talk often or loud enough to whoever she was on the phone with enough to really bother me, but whenever something big would happen she’d tell the person on the phone about it. I was baffled. But it didn’t stop me from hearing the movie, so that’s all that really mattered.

Finally, I made it back to my hotel, set my alarm so I could check out on time the next morning, and went to sleep.

(Side note to this post; I recognize I have a negative bias towards zoos. I have had weird feelings towards them for as long as I can remember. I tried to keep my feelings of ethics regarding zoos mostly out of my review for Zoo Atlanta. My experience with it was negative for reasons other than my morals.)


Athena Scalzi

Day Two In Atlanta

First off, thank you to everyone that commented on my first day post that recommended me places to check out, welcomed me to the city, or just said they enjoyed the post. I especially appreciate y’all saying that I’m good at this whole travel writing thing, it means a lot to me!

So, I was planning to start day two of my vacation with brunch, but the place I went to (Atlanta Breakfast Club) was far too crowded and loud for my enjoyment, so I went across the street to the aquarium, which was where I was planning to go after eating, anyways.

The aquarium was the thing I was most excited for on this trip. However, I didn’t really have a very good time.

Upon entering, it was immediately cool and dark, and there was a huge wall of moon jelly fish leading up to the ticket scanning machines. I love jellyfish, and moon jellies are by far one of the best types, so I was instantly happy to see them. There was a sign next to the tank with a QR code that said you could donate and name a jellyfish! I was super excited about this opportunity, but upon opening the link, the only option is to donate $50 to name one. I thought that that was a little more than I wanted to spend, considering the tickets to get in are about $40.

Moving on, after you scan your ticket and walk through the little gate thing, you will be standing in the central lobby area. Everything in the aquarium is like a branch that loops and comes back to this central part.

I took some pretty not good photos, so I’ll tell you a bit about what you see here. Like I said, each section goes away from the main area, and then loops back to it. Here we have “River Scouts”, “Dolphin Coast”, and “Cold Water Quest”. In the first photo, there’s the cafeteria called “Cafe Aquaria”, and another exhibit section called “Ocean Voyage”. Not pictured are two sections called “Predators of the Deep”, and “Tropic” something. Also a gift shop called “Sunken Treasures” or something corny like that.

I decided to get overpriced food from the cafe first, since I hadn’t eaten before coming, and ended up getting a corndog and cotton candy mini melts. It was about ten dollars.

And talk about southern hospitality, look at all the sauces they gave me!

I don’t even like yellow mustard.

The cafeteria was crowded, and I decided to sit in the upstairs seating in hopes that it would be a little quieter.

After finishing, I went to the section right next to it, “Ocean Voyage”, and was met with this sixty foot long tank:

This was obviously the main attraction of the exhibit, so people were swarming it like they were never gonna see a fish again in their lives. Besides the variety of fish you see here, there were sting-rays, manta-rays, and most interestingly, a whale shark. It was huge, and the star of the show. Everyone got riled up when it swam into view, only to disappear just as quickly.

That was pretty much all there was to see in that section, so I moved on to “River Scouts”.

Here we had tiny tank after tiny tank of small fish. Honestly, the only exciting thing to see in this area were the otters. And since that was the case, everyone was so crowded around the glass that you wouldn’t be able to see them unless you shoved your way to the front. Which, I didn’t, so I only caught a glimpse of them when someone would move to leave, only to be instantly replaced by someone else gunning for the spot. (This ended up being a common thing throughout the day.)

It was definitely an underwhelming section, so I moved on to the one next to it, “Dolphin Coast”. At the entrance of this section, there’s a staircase upwards, and two escalators that both go down. I thought that to be an odd choice, especially considering there are so many people with strollers. After heading up the stairs, there was a long corridor with screens, all displaying grainy ass videos of dolphins. I was beginning to be convinced that there were no actual dolphins here, only screens of them, when I finally reached a tank with a little viewing area that everyone was pressed up against.

Lo and behold, dolphins in a depressingly small tank. The viewing window was pretty pathetic, you could barely see anything, and there were signs everywhere promoting the dolphin shows. Basically, if you really want to see the dolphins, you have to go to a show. “Dolphin Coast” ended up being supremely underwhelming, as well.

I went back down the long corridor, down the escalator, and into “Cold Water Quest”. Now here was a cool exhibit. There were tons of freaky looking creatures in darkly lit tanks, like Japanese spider-crabs and sea dragons.

I really wish I had some photos of any of these things for y’all, but it’s so hard to get a shot with everyone being so close to the glass that their breathing fogs it up. Plus the glare and reflections on the glass was so bad that I couldn’t really take a photo even if the place wasn’t filled to the brim with people and strollers. God, it’s so hard to move around so many strollers all the time. They’re so big, and the areas are so small. Sheesh.

Anyways, every exhibit was pretty quick, once you could find a clear path through the crowd, so I was already moving on to “Predators of the Deep”. This section was basically just one big shark tank with several viewing windows throughout the wall. I was starting to get really tired of everyone basically smushing themselves against the glass, and then screaming “there it is!” whenever they saw an inkling of a fish. I like aquariums for the dark, quiet, atmosphere. They always seem like such peaceful places, but I guess anything can become unpeaceful when you get enough people in an area.

After the sharks, there was another beautiful wall of jellyfish, and it was the loudest, most impossible to get through area I’d been in all day. There were blockades of strollers, people having conversations louder than you have to talk at a rave, kids banging on the glass, and tons of blinding flash photography despite all the signs saying not to do that.

Right next to it was a smaller window of white-spotted jellyfish. So small that only one person could view it at a time. So I waited as patiently as I could for a chance to look, but every time the person in front of me would leave, someone would shove their way in front of me before I had time to fill the space. I got so fed-up of people cutting and being inconsiderate. It was hard to believe that other adults could be so rude.

I was definitely having sensory overload after that, so I headed to the gift shop to check the fuck outta the aquarium. The line was a mile long, and everything was overpriced, but I got a plushie, so it was all worth it in the end.

This is Percy:

I also got this bag of chocolate covered pretzels, but upon opening was disappointed to see that there’s a completely unnecessary divider in the plastic to intentionally cut down on the amount of pretzels they give you:

All in all, I would say if you have any problem at all with crowds, or noise, or claustrophobia, do not go to the aquarium. I have never encountered so many rude, inconsiderate people with rude, loud kids to match. I don’t really blame kids for being kids, but I do have an issue when kids do things like bang on glass, scream, run around and bump into strangers, and the parents do nothing to stop them.

Also, practically all the exhibits were underwhelming because there was a lot of “pay-to-play” action going on. It felt like you had to cough up cash at basically every turn. Speaking of which, after I purchased my items from the gift shop, I noticed they didn’t put my items in a bag (which normally isn’t an issue but I was going to be walking back to the hotel after so I didn’t want to carry them), so I asked for one and they said they don’t have bags, but you can purchase a five dollar reusable tote if you want. Sheesh.

I would say that I did have a positive experience at the aquarium, but just barely. Like it was negative a lot of the time, and almost enough to make me regret going, but I did see some cool fish, and got a stuffed animal, so whatevs.

After decompressing at the hotel for a couple hours, it was time to go to dinner. This was the one dinner this trip I had a reservation for, and have been looking forward to since I decided to come to Atlanta in the first place.

I went to the Sundial, which is on the 71st/72nd story of the Westin Hotel, and I definitely think I had dinner with a view.

The menu was fairly small, but had seafood, steak, chicken, lamb, a porkchop, and a vegetarian option of gnocchi, so there’s certainly something for everyone.

I decided to start with a peach lemonade.

They also brought out some fresh bread that was quite soft and fluffy, with whipped butter.

I totally filled up on bread before the appetizer even came, but I have no regrets.

I ended up getting the wagyu as the starter.

It was so tasty. The meat was super tender, and the contrast between the softness of the meat and the crunch of the flaky sea salt was superb. The cilantro sauce was light, bright, and had a slight kick to it. I absolutely loved this appetizer and would totally recommend it to anyone who loves a good steak.

For the entree, I knew the salmon was the right call for me.

While the salmon was perfectly cooked and moist, the risotto was more on the meh side than the delicious side, though I can’t say I’ve ever really been the biggest fan of risotto, so maybe I’m not the best person to judge it. As for the asparagus, I think a few more pieces would’ve been nice, but the pieces I did get were tender and juicy. It was definitely an enjoyable dish, but I think I liked the appetizer better. I ended up getting a box because I just had to get dessert.

As many of you know, I am on a quest for the world’s greatest crème brûlée, so this was an obvious choice for me.

This crème brûlée was certainly good, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was not the best in the world, so my search continues. This one in particular was lacking in that perfect crystalline top layer. As you can see, it has some, but it was rather sparse. So much so in fact, there was no cracking when I tapped it with my spoon because there was so much space in between each section of burnt sugar. The berries were really fresh, though!

I would love to go back to the Sundial sometime, it’s been the best part of Atlanta so far.

I was totally stuffed after dinner, so I went back to the hotel and fell asleep almost immediately! This second night indicated the halfway mark of my trip! Let’s hope the third day is totally bangin’.


Athena Scalzi

Day One In Atlanta

Hello, Atlanta, I am in you! For the first time, in fact (unless you count tons of layovers in the airport).

After hitting the road at just past 8am yesterday, I ended up arriving a little after 5pm. Immediately, parking was a bitch. The hotel I’m staying at says it has “self-park”, and a public parking garage right next to it. I pulled into it and it had two machines, one for the public where you could take a ticket, and one for the hotel guests where you swipe your keycard for entry. I hadn’t thought to get the keycard and whatnot first, so I just took a ticket, parked, and went inside to check in.

I’m staying at the Georgian Terrace, which actually looks pretty cool from the outside.

And the inside isn’t half bad, either.

Okay, so, for some reason I thought I had to repark my car now that I had the keycard. I should’ve just thrown the ticket away, but my brain doesn’t work right sometimes, so I gave the ticket to the machine and paid ten dollars to exit the garage, then went around the block to re-enter with the keycard. I pulled up and swiped it, and nothing happened. It didn’t work. I tried it every-which-way I could, but to no avail. So, I reversed and did a 3-point turn to park in front of the hotel, then went in and asked about it.

Apparently, I needed a parking pass keycard, which is separate from your room keycard. So, I obtained a parking pass card, got back in my car and pulled back into the garage. Upon swiping the parking pass, nothing happened. I didn’t understand why it wasn’t working, and I was just about to reverse again when a car pulled in behind me. The panic set in as two more cars immediately pulled in behind that one. So now I had three cars behind me and a non-working parking pass. So I took another ticket.

I went back inside, said it wasn’t working, and was given a different parking pass. This time I had the common sense to throw away the ticket. Before moving my car again, I stood in front of the machine and swiped the parking pass. Instead of doing nothing, it said “no car on lot”. Okay, so it worked, it just didn’t sense a car. But I wasn’t fully convinced yet, so I decided to try exiting again, and if it didn’t work I would just reverse (hopefully).

Finally, it did work, and I exited, circled the block, and entered successfully with the parking pass keycard. SHEESH.

Also, if you stand in the middle of the lobby and look up, you see this:

And here’s the shot of it once you get off on your floor (depending how high up you are):

I’m not sure if every room comes with cookies, or if it’s just because I got a deluxe suite, but there were cookies in the room!

They tasted just like lemon cheesecake.

Speaking of the deluxe suite, I hate to be that bitch but you would think if you stay in a suite in what is claimed to be one of the nicest hotels in Midtown, that you’d get a mini fridge, or a microwave, or a bath tub. But there aren’t any of those things. And the bed is honestly pretty small even though I specifically got a king. Also, one of my towels had holes in it. So far, I’m not terribly impressed for the price. (Also the art is ugly, but that’s subjective.)

After settling in and relaxing for a bit, I set out for dinner. I was in the mood for anything, so I just looked around on Maps until I came across a ramen place that sounded bangin’, so I started on the twenty minute walk to E Ramen.

It was pretty crowded, which makes sense considering it was peak dinner time. The inside was open, sleek, minimalistic, and way too echo-y for how many people were there. It was uncomfortably loud (it got better after it cleared out a bit, once there were less people it wasn’t painfully loud anymore).

I ordered gyoza first, and it came out within about three minutes.

These gyoza were super delicious, some of the best I’ve ever had, and the sauce was really great, too. And there was plenty of the sauce as well, so I didn’t have to skimp on each dumpling.

I ordered The Dark Knight ramen, which is basically just black garlic tonkotsu ramen (my favorite kind). It came out in under two minutes!

The ramen was seriously delish. The noodles were really good, the egg was cooked perfectly, the broth was incredible, and honestly my only complaint is that the pork was a little on the dry side. I like a super tender pork belly, but I know some people don’t like the texture of pork belly when it’s all fatty and soft, so maybe they’d prefer this style.

I managed to stop before I got too full (just barely), and saved room for panna cotta for dessert:

This panna cotta was odd to me because it had a layer of what I can only assume was Rice Krispies on top. Between the crispy layer and the soft panna cotta was maple syrup. I thought it to be a strange combination, but it worked super well together!

It was really yummy, and was the perfect finish to a great meal.

On the walk back to the hotel, I saw some really neat stuff, like this frog!

And this very interesting stretching studio.

There was sign in the window that said “first stretch free!” How could one resist such a great deal?

And finally, I passed this church that I have dubbed “the gay church”:

After some more chilling, I decided it was high time for some Insomnia Cookies. If you don’t know what that is, Insomnia Cookies is a chain that is usually only found in cities and college campuses. They serve cookies until 3am, and even deliver. They’re quite pricey, with the deluxe ones being around five dollars a cookie, but so damn good.

The delivery guy got here quickly, and I’m convinced that he must’ve been driving like a maniac, because my cookies were wildly askew when I opened the box.

(My eyes were way bigger than my stomach, I ate half of one of the big ones and decided that was plenty for the time being.)

Also, I only ordered cookies, but somehow ended up with two cups of cookie dough and strawberry cheesecake ice cream.

The delivery guy handed me my box of cookies and a brown paper bag and drove away before I could question it. Upon opening it, I found the ice cream. So if you’re in Atlanta and ordered Insomnia last night and did not receive your cookie dough ice cream, I’m sorry. It was very tasty. Especially the strawberry cheese cake flavor, would highly recommend.

Then I went to sleep because it had been a long, pretty tiring day!

Not such a bad first day, I think.


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout

Even in fiction, pets are a big responsibility. Author Greg van Eekhout makes that extra clear in his new novel, Fenris & Mott, where we’re introduced to a new version of a particularly legendary dog. Follow along in this Big Idea as the author tells you a little about a dog ownership in a world in the midst of major change.


By the way, the world is ending. I don’t mean Earth is going to do a Krypton, but our way of life is causing mass extinction and extreme weather and generally making the planet a less hospitable, more difficult, more dangerous, and more costly place to live. I know you know that, but the reason I bring it up is that I decided to write a middle-grade novel (i.e. marketed to readers aged 8-12) in which Ragnarök is taking place now, and to describe massive floods and fires and storms without acknowledging climate change seemed dishonest. 

What I’d set out to do was write a book about promises. When Mott finds a baby Fenris abandoned in an alley, she promises to take care of him no matter what. Even when she learns that Fenris isn’t a dog puppy but rather the wolf of Norse mythology destined to bring about destruction and eat gods in the twilight of the universe, she is determined to keep that promise. And even when Fenris’s appetite grows and he starts devouring pick-up trucks and A-list movie actors, she remains undeterred. Not even the gods who are using Ragnarök to their own benefit can stop her. Mott’s a tough cookie when it comes to keeping promises because she knows how lousy it feels when someone breaks a promise. But what is the Ragnarök prophecy if not the universe’s promise to end in mayhem, disaster, and strife? 

It can be a little tricky writing about kids who take action to save the world. Too often we look to them as the solutions to the problems we created. We shrug our shoulders and say, “Sorry, youngsters, we failed you, but we have no doubt that, through your heroic efforts, you’ll turn things around, because you’re awesome.” That’s lazy, irresponsible, and hugely unfair. Do I want to promise kids they can beat the gods (in this case, the gods being fossil fuel companies and those who owe their fortunes and political careers to fossil fuel companies)? Sure. But to paraphrase Jewish scholar, Shlomo Bardin, it’s the job of every one of us to mend the world. We’re not required to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to quit. That means we adults still have to fight this battle. 

I like my books to be layered, so it’s not all climate catastrophe and musings about promises. There’re also musings about root beer and sleep overs and a young Valkyrie who doesn’t understand why she can’t just stab people in Los Angeles. And I went through pains to make sure Fenris was both as cute and chaotic as any puppy with the capacity to eat the moon. I hope the book is funny, fun, exciting, and hopeful. 

Finally, I’ll close by making a promise of my own, the same one I make to readers of all my books: The dog doesn’t die. 


Fenris & Mott: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a NASA spacecraft! Come along in Alan Smale’s Big Idea, as he tells you about his new novel, Hot Moon, where an alternate history involving Russia and the moon has occurred.


I’m writing this blog post on one of my very favorite anniversaries: July 20th. Which, in this noble year of Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, is the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. 

My love for the Apollo Program has been deep and abiding, and has played a critical role in my life. It strengthened my interest in science from a very early age, influenced my most significant career decisions, and has given me some of my most powerful memories and experiences. And, given the various groups I hang with these days, I know I’m not alone in that. Show of hands?


When Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon I was an eight-year-old living in Yorkshire, England, fascinated by every detail. I studied up and memorized everything I could about the Apollo astronauts (from all the missions), the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets that took them into orbit and beyond, and all of the technical details of their Lunar Modules and Command and Service Modules that were available to me. I was gripped by the dramas, like Apollo 8’s orbits of the Moon, the Apollo 11 landing, and the Apollo 13 Lost Moon mission, but also had an insatiable appetite for the small stuff: the meticulous and extensive engineering testing they did on the earlier Apollos, the minutiae of the spacesuits and the ALSEP experiments, the dorky aluminum golf carts of the Lunar Rovers, the routes of their surface excursions. The rocks. The rolling. The entire package.

Back then I really, really believed I’d be living in space by the time I reached the age I am now. I mean, why wouldn’t I? 

In 1969, some of the pundits were saying we’d be on Mars by the 1980s. And even back then I knew that might be a stretch, but hey: I didn’t need to go to Mars, exactly. I just wanted to slip the surly bonds of Earth, meaning its gravity, and get up there to live and work in space. 

Well, dang it, that didn’t happen, and I’m still subject to those surly bonds, but I gave it my best shot. Took physics and astrophysics at college. Even ended up working for NASA, though not on human spaceflight – I do astrophysics research, manage one of NASA’s Big Three astro data archives, and help others to do science. But, bottom line: here I am, still stuck on Planet Earth. Le grand sigh.

What I’m leading up to is this: Hot Moon was the book that I always wanted to write. My labor of love, my tribute to the Apollo Program that inspired so many people way back there in the dark ages, shortly after the dinosaurs perished and just a few moments before Vietnam and Watergate crushed the idealism of a nation. Because: it was Space, people! 

My Big Idea was not that the Soviets get to the Moon first, although in Hot Moon they do, and I do believe it would have changed everything if it had happened that way in real life. The Big Idea is that the Apollo program continued. And it was ambitious, and glorious, and exciting. And of course there’s conflict: the book features war in space, this world’s first ever space battle, between clunky Apollo and Soyuz craft, maneuvering around a Skylab in lunar orbit. Honestly, a lot of things don’t go well for my characters. But the technology, science, orbital maneuvering, and just the sheer risk and excitement of spaceflight: all of that is as accurate as I could make it, and I hope the heady thrill of those years comes across.

Just like me, the commander of Apollo 32, Vivian Carter, loves the Moon. She’s utterly dedicated to her ten-day exploratory mission to the Marius Hills area. A mission that … she ends up losing, due to the Cold War turned hot. In space.

Hot Moon is a thriller with a nerd’s beating heart, and perhaps a hint of competence porn. It’s MacGyver on the Moon, trying to figure out how to beat back an armed-and-dangerous Soviet threat with rocks and model rocketry, ingenuity and improvisation. And once everything hits the fan, there may be a touch of Andy Weir in the math that will keep Vivian Carter alive, and eventually help her solve the book’s deeper puzzle about What’s Really Going On. How to defeat the relentless KGB/Spetsnaz cosmonauts arrayed against her, on the surface and on the captured Columbia Station in orbit. And, how to survive the hostile Moon itself.

Have there been other alternate-space-program stories recently? Yes: it feels like this is our moment. You should obviously check out Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. Rosemary Claire Smith has a nifty story in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of Analog, “The Next Frontier”, which you should read too. There’s also a certain TV show with a similar premise. I started writing HOT MOON in 2017, long before I knew anything about For All Mankind, and had delivered a complete draft to my agent and beta readers before the first episode aired (publishing is a slow business, especially when you toss in a pandemic). But Hot Moon has a very different feel and direction than other stories I’ve seen. For one thing, it takes place entirely on and around the Moon. And it’s very much a technothriller rather than a soap opera, though hopefully one with heart. Suffice to say that there’s room for a few different alt-Apollo takes, and those listed above are all very different. 

I’m here for all of it. I have a thing for the Moon, and so do Vivian and her crew, and the astronauts at Columbia Station and Hadley Base, and those tough guys from USAF Special Ops, and some of the more sympathetic Soviet characters whose viewpoints we get to see along the way. I hope you’ll join us all for high jinks in one-sixth gravity. 

Obligatory PSA: if you’re about to fire off a social media post along the lines of: “The Moon landings were fake! How do we know they really happened?” I’d ask you to pause, take a very deep breath, and consider: the 400,000 people who worked on Apollo were all lying? And the Soviet Union, our adversaries in the Space Race, would have let us get away with such a brazen deception? 

Nah. NASA really did it. And if they’d kept on doing it, maybe we’d now be in the future that I assumed I’d be living in, having passed through a 1979 something like the one in Hot Moon along the way.

And that would have been really cool.

Hot Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Athena Scalzi

Trying Out A New Recipe: Blueberry Crumb Cake

The first time I got into cooking videos on YouTube was back in 2012, when I was thirteen. And the channel that got me into cooking videos was a channel called Kin Community. There were several different content creators that all made their own videos and then posted under Kin Community’s channel, but the only one I was interested in was a woman named Beth.

I’m not sure when, but eventually she broke off from Kin Community and became her own channel, Entertaining With Beth, and I stopped watching Kin Community (now just called Kin) after she left. She ended up being my favorite cooking person on YouTube for years to come, and just generally my favorite creator on YouTube for a while there. I even wrote a post over her back in 2018 talking about how awesome her recipes are and how much I love her channel.

Funnily enough, I’ve only made a handful of her recipes throughout the years, but there is one that I have consistently made that I love, and that’s her Blueberry Lemon Muffins. I used to have a screenshot of the recipe, but when I went to make the muffins recently, I couldn’t find the screenshot. I checked her website to see if she had it there. And in my searching, I found a Blueberry Crumble Cake recipe. I thought I’d move on from the muffins and try something new. And boy am I glad I did! This recipe was surprisingly easy, and the results were super yummy!

For the ingredients list, it’s all standard stuff that you probably wouldn’t have to make a trip to the store for, other than the blueberries (but I had blueberries which is why I had been looking for a way to use them in the first place). There’s no complicated ingredient like Dutch process cocoa powder or vanilla bean paste, there’s pretty much just regular ol’ flour, some vanilla, butter, a couple of eggs, and sugar. Easy peasy.

You just put all that in a bowl and mix until you get this:

After you gently stir in the blueberries, you just put it in your greased pan:

And then you make the topping, which is just more of what was already required for the cake itself! So convenient. I will say, though, that my butter wasn’t very cold by the time I got to this step so my topping ended up much more cohesive than a “crumble” topping probably should be:

This was definitely supposed to be more like dry sand and less like wet sand, but it’s fine, I covered the surface perfectly if I do say so myself:

45 minutes later, BAM:

Golden brown, baybee.

I was so excited that I cut into them way too soon, and my first piece completely lost all its structural integrity.

I was upset because I didn’t realize the only reason that this happened was because I didn’t let them cool. I just thought they’d all be like this and that it was a total failure. But that was not the case! I had more patience, and the second one came out like this:

And don’t ask me why I’m holding it like I have LEGO hands.

So, yeah, badda bing badda boom, blueberry crumble cake!

I highly recommend giving this recipe a try. It was so easy and came together quickly. Also, it tastes awesome! I will for sure be making this again in the future.


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

In blank we trust. Who is that blank for you? Are you that blank for others? Trust is a valuable thing, and according to author Dan Moren, the lack of it is prevalent in his new novel, The Nova Incident.


Who do you trust? 

It’s a harder question than you might think. Maybe because trust is in such short supply these days. Nowhere is that clearer than in our relationships with the institutions in our lives—especially the ones that nominally exist to look out for all of us. From the police to the highest levels of our government, trust isn’t something that can be taken for granted these days. (And, indeed, the idea that we’ve ever been able to trust those institutions is one deeply rooted in privilege.)

There’s an element of this lack of trust that is decidedly personal, though. As of this fall, I’ll have been a self-employed freelancer for eight years—longer than I ever worked for any single organization. The reason for that isn’t precisely rooted in distrust, but it’s certainly played its part. 

My longest run at a single workplace ended when I was abruptly laid off in 2014, along with the majority of my colleagues, as part of a cost-cutting measure. Unsurprisingly, that experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I’d been good at my job and I’d thought my performance and loyalty would count for something in the long term, that the company was as invested in me as it expected me to be in it.

Not the case. 

That certainly colored the way I view large institutions and made me less inclined to go work for another large organization (something that I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to do). 

I won’t say the genesis of The Nova Incident necessarily stems from that specific event, but a mistrust of institutions is definitely a major theme. Nova may be a sci-fi adventure story, but it’s also a spy thriller (two great tastes that taste great together, trust me) and a classic spy trope is that when you’re in a duplicitous business, you can’t really trust anyone—even (or perhaps especially) the people who are supposed to be on your side. In this line of work, being too trusting can get you killed.

Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team have been through a lot together throughout the Galactic Cold War series thus far; they’ve taken on planet-sized corporations, megalomaniacal royalty, and brutal crime lords, just to name a few. But suddenly they find themselves dealing with a threat much closer to home: when a bomb explodes on Nova, the Commonwealth’s capital world, an organization called Nova Front claims responsibility, demanding that the planet withdraw from the galactic alliance.

To reveal too much more of the plot risks spoiling some surprises, so let’s say this: issues of trust—or the lack thereof—run throughout this story. In investigating the attack, Kovalic and his compatriots quickly find themselves in murky waters, questioning if they can even trust what they think they know about Nova Front and the bombing itself.

Meanwhile, trust is fractured from within as well as from without. Despite everything that this group has experienced together, there are still undercurrents of uncertainty among them. Pilot Eli Brody has lingering suspicions about the death of former teammate Aaron Page; sniper Addy Sayers is given information that plants seeds of doubt about the team’s true loyalties; even the stalwart Sergeant Tapper knows something is amiss, even if he’s not sure what. 

But what really defines the story is the team’s relationships with the larger institutions that they come into conflict with, especially organizations of their own government. After all, the team is itself the instrument of that government, and if they question the motives of its other arms, they must by necessity question their own. 

Ultimately, The Nova Incident delves deep into the big questions about trust: can we ever really trust an institution to act in the best interest of people it represents? Should one expect loyalty from an organization that demands it from you? And, when the chips are down, who really has your back? Because trust might get you killed, but going through life without it is an awful lonely way to live. 

The Nova Incident: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Ruthanna Emrys

The way our world is going now, there might not be much of future to look forward to. For author Ruthanna Emrys, she tried to imagine what that future could possibly look like in her new novel, A Half-Built Garden. Follow along as she talks about how we all can get there.


“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” 

Ursula Le Guin’s quote has become a touchstone for resistance, and a source of hope in seemingly inescapable circumstances. But how do you imagine something better than the circumstances that shape everything around you? What looks as different from modern global capitalism as capitalism looks from god-touched emperors? And what parts of modernity will stick around and cause trouble even after they’re supposedly relegated to the past?

A Half-Built Garden started as an effort to imagine that different, better, world – and to imagine what could crash into its assumptions as dramatically as climate change crashes into the market. Living in 2017 Washington DC, I saw how desperately agency workers worked to keep the basic functions of government going, even as other parts of that government were taking away their power to do good and prevent harm. The first seed of my future, then, was the idea that nation-states would continue to move towards authoritarianism and away from basic societal maintenance, leaving gaps where new forms of governance might step in.

That replacement was shaped by earlier, happier DC experiences, working with the Environmental Protection Agency on citizen science projects. The Dandelion Networks that dominate 2083 started as groups working on bioblitzes and personal air quality sensors and public pothole reporting – and who ultimately took on the responsibility of solving the problems they were measuring. They’re aided in this by algorithms to enforce the biases that they want to shape society, weighting decisions toward protecting ecosystems and human rights.

By 2083, Dandelion Networks built around watersheds control most of the planet, living in an uneasy truce with the remnant governments of nation-states. The descendants of billionaires and CEOs live in exile on artificial islands, playing power games and looking for some way to return to power. I had a lot of fun coming up with the little details of life in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network, and the everyday problems that people still face. The nuclear family is a thing of the past, but sometimes you need matchmakers to find coparents. People argue about everything from carbon budgets to knitting patterns. And sensors regularly pick up water pollution, which might be just a fluke or might be corporations testing the boundaries of their fencelines.

Or it might be aliens. Aliens would change everything.

It was often hard, writing a hopeful future from within an inescapable present. Some days fascism and climate crisis and pandemic took up all my brain space. Others, they just made me question whether there was really a way to get from here to there. Another of my favorite quotes is Mariame Kaba’s “Hope is a discipline” – a better future isn’t something to have faith in, it’s something to work towards, regardless of how scary or frustrating or unlikely it feels. So on the days when I had brainspace, I opened my computer and tried to map out a way. 

A Half-Built Garden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

Athena Scalzi

Universal Yums: July 2022 Review

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Universal Yums review! Today’s review features my dad as a co-reviewer, so you get double the opinion for the same low low price of free!

July’s box full of snacks comes to us all the way from India. Here’s the assortment:

There are ten snacks total, and three of them are the candies at the bottom.

Getting right into it, we started off with the Tikka Masala Corn Chips:

As you can imagine based on the appearance and the fact that they’re made out of corn, these were very Dorito-like. They’re even called Cornitos, so it’s not surprising that they resemble them so much, both in appearance and in texture. These chips were very strongly scented, and honestly they smelled exactly like Tikka Masala. Upon eating them, my dad said “they’ve got a kick”, meanwhile I was dying from the spiciness. These bitches are HOT. I needed milk, but we didn’t have any, so the suffering lasted a while.

I can see how these would be good for someone who isn’t a huge baby about spice, so I deem it a 5/10. My dad settled on a 7/10.

Moving on to something less painful, we have these Almond & Pistachio Cookies:

Not quite as glamorous looking as on the box, but that’s okay because this cookie actually tasted super good. It was crunchy like a shortbread and subtly sweet. My dad and I both agreed that it had a bit of a floral note to it, and we suspected it was cardamom, but upon reading the ingredients, we discovered there was no cardamom in it, though we could’ve sworn that was the exact flavor we were tasting. Overall, it was a 9/10 from both of us.

Next up was this bag of Sweet & Salty Rice Flakes:

This snack was especially odd because there was so much of it in the bag that it was actually pretty hefty for a chip bag. Plus, the contents are not really something you can eat easily straight from the bag. We ended up pouring some out into a bowl. There’s just so many small pieces in the mix that it makes it hard to eat by hand, especially if you don’t put it into another container first. My dad said it felt like a “forbidden cereal”, and that it was similar to a “bar mix” type of snack.

Aside from the inconvenience of eating it, it was strangely addicting. It was crispy, but sometimes sort of softer crisp, like unexpectedly delicate. My dad also said that for being something sweet and salty, it should be saltier, and that the flavors were unbalanced, and that the flavor palette overall was incomplete. I can agree it was a bit on the bland side, certainly not that usual balanced flavor palette you get from sweet and salty mixes, but then again, I plowed through this stuff like it was nothing, so I gave it an 8/10. My dad went for a 7.5/10.

Bringing another cookie into the mix, we have this Chocolate Flavored Sandwich Cookie:

These were so mid-tier that there honestly isn’t much to say about them. Artificial chocolate is always just artificial chocolate, and if you like that taste, great. If you don’t, well, these cookies are not for you. My dad and I aren’t a huge fan of anything chocolate that isn’t actual chocolate, so these cookies didn’t really do it for us. I did think they tasted exactly like a brown Tootsie Pop, though. I decided on a 6/10 for these, while my dad went with a 6.5/10.

Back to the spicy things, we tried these Mini Lentil Samosas:

Listen, samosas are great. These are not. You can’t take something that’s crispy, fried perfection, and try to package it and send it overseas, because you will end up with something that feels very stale. The texture was deeply unpleasant. And the taste? Also unpleasant. AND SPICY. Way hotter than the chips, even. My dad said he was craving a real samosa after this utter disappointment of one, and I agreed. I gave it a 2/10, and my dad so generously gave it a 4/10.

Swinging back into sweets, we have these Coconut Flavored Sugar Biscuits:

Another very simple biscuit cookie thing, much like the chocolate ones mentioned earlier. If you like coconut, great, you’ll probably like these cookies. If not, then you would not enjoy these! These are just very normal shortbread cookies that taste like coconut. They have a pleasant crunchy texture and not much else going on. They earned a 7.5/10 from me and a solid 7/10 from my dad.

Now, for the most unique snack in the box, Soan Papdi:

Have you ever wanted to eat insulation? Based on the box and the image of the snack on the box, my dad and I were expecting something like baklava, but what we got was insanely delicate cubes of asbestos.

Here is my dad holding a carefully procured cube.

And here is how much it fell apart upon transferring the cube into my hand.

And this was after I tried to take a bite. All structural integrity has been lost, reducing it to a million little strands of whatever it’s made out of.

As you can see, my dad had the same issue. This snack was insanely messy and difficult, and honestly after one bite you gotta call it quits because it’s so strongly flavored. It tastes perfume-y and really is not that great overall. This got a 5/10 from me, and a 6/10 from my dad.

Finally done with all the regular snacks, we moved onto the candies, starting with this Caramel Choco Éclair one:

I was expecting a soft, chewy caramel, but got a rock hard caramel instead. It was much harder than I anticipated, and not all that tasty. It was very mediocre. There are certainly better caramels out there, so I wouldn’t waste your time with this one. For my dad, he said it tasted just like a candy he used to have as a kid, so the nostalgia-inducing flavor of it made him give it an 8/10, but his actual rating of it was 5/10. As was mine.

Next up was the candy I was most excited for, this Creamy Pistachio candy:

You know when you’re a kid and you see something food shaped that looks delicious, and you learn the hard way it’s actually soap? This candy tasted like that painful realization that sometimes things that look edible are not actually meant for eating. Not to mention the texture of this was like a wax melt cube, so that only contributed to the idea that this was more like soap or a candle than actual food.

Good lord this candy was so fucking bad. Probably one of the worst candies I’ve ever had in my entire life, second only to Jelly Belly’s intentionally disgusting flavors. Do not eat this candy. 1/10 from me, and a 2/10 from my dad, though I can’t understand how he’d rate it so high.

Finally, this Apricot Hard Candy:

My dad popped this bad boy in and look perplexed, and asked me what flavor the candy was. I said “apricot” and he said he would not have guessed that. I asked what would he have guessed, because it seemed quite apricot-y to me, but he said “sandalwood”. I didn’t even know you could eat sandalwood, I just know it as that scent that all my grandma’s candles seem to be. The description for this candy in the booklet said that it had a milky center, but my dad and I both agreed after cracking it open with our teeth that there was like, maybe one small drop of liquid in the center, and whatever it was certainly had no flavor or was really detectable at all. Overall, it was pretty meh, it was just a fruity hard candy, not bad or anything but not amazing. 6/10 from both of us.

In the end, we ended up having the same favorite snack: the almond and pistachio cookies.

And the same least favorite snack: the pistachio candy.

What looks good to you? If you got this box too, do you concur with our thoughts? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jackson Bliss

Life is full of decisions, and sometimes those decisions can be tough. For author Jackson Bliss, making decisions was the driving force behind his newest novel, Dream Pop Origami. Read on to see how one’s decisions will impact the story.


Dream Pop Origami is based on a single big idea I had in grad school with lots of interesting and unexpected consequences: what if a memoir about mixed-race/AAPI/BIPOC identity was structured like a choose-your-own-adventure novel? How different would the reading experience be if readers got to choose what the next “chapter” of a memoir? How differently, if at all, would the idea of memoir change if readers had agency in their own act of reading someone else’s life? How differently, if at all, would the construction of text and mixed-race identity change if the reader, not the author, decided its structure, narrative speed, major themes, and level of emotional interiority? 

I came up with the idea of Dream Pop Origami during my MFA. I wrote the first—and horrendously disjointed—draft between 2012 and 2014 when I was working on my dissertation and from 2014 to 2019 when I was commuting from LA to Orange County to teach writing/rhetoric at UC Irvine. I revised the manuscript from 2019 to 2021 in Ann Arbor and LA. Never in a million years did I think I would publish this memoir because it’s so heterodox, multimodal, experimental, and stylistically eccentric (both literally and figuratively). What excited me was the idea of creating an interactive work of nonfiction, something I’d never seen before in any form except hypertext (I’m thinking of Shelley Jackson’s My Body, which I’ve read and taught many times, finding new layers in every new reading). Though I didn’t realize it at the time, much of the excitement I had for this book was based on two important things from my childhood.

The first was choose-your-own-adventure novels. Until these novels became available, I thought I hated reading since the shit we had to read for history, social studies, and English classes in elementary school were fucking horrendous. The reading assignments were unbelievably boring and the book reports they made us write were so formulaic. They were also low in content and historical accuracy too, written in a dry style, stripped of any and all imagination, and totally lacking in literary merit or creativity whatsoever. But when I started reading first choose-your-own-adventure books, they changed my fucking world! I saw for the first time what a strong narrative arc could do for storytelling. I learned that giving your characters (and readers) agency was a natural way of giving them their humanity by forcing them to make their own decisions and then live by the consequences of those decisions.

In other words, there’s a necessary relationship in literature, I think, between causality, ontology, and humanity. When characters get to make their own choices and live by those choses, they get to exist in the text and we get to study their existence. And as a consequence, their humanity is both tested and developed on the page. I guess it took a niche fiction market for me to see how exciting this could be!

The second thing was my reconnection to video games. Being a mixed-race kid and the son of Japanese immigrants on my mom’s side, I was an Atari 3600, IBM PC, and arcade gamer as a boy. Sometimes, video games kept my company when I came home to an empty house. Years before I became a dedicated book lover, an emerging writer, or literature scholar, I first found joy, companionship, and interactive storytelling in video games. Whether it was in Oregon Trail (where everyone got dysentery), Treasure Island (which required you to type in the exact command or die by bluebeard), and King’s Quest, there was never a time when I didn’t have access to a (narrative) video game in my childhood. Years later when I was getting my PhD, I bought an Xbox 360, which was a terrible idea for my sleep schedule, but great for my creativity.

Once I began teaching at UCI, I bought myself a PS4 as a reward. I became kinda obsessed with Detroit: Become Human, and the Fallout, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Life is Strange, Mass Effect, and Final Fantasy series. I found exhilaration in the organic multimodal storytelling of those video games, the way that music, dialogue, gameplay, backstory, side missions, character arcs, and graphics could work together to create a multidimensional text that could be so rich, so powerful, so of-the-moment, and so emotionally impactful. I also found exhilaration in the power of my own decision making as a player. Most of these video games give you agency to make your own decisions and those decisions not only affected the ending, but the plot lines and the character arcs as well.

For all these reasons, Dream Pop Origami is as much the product of a literary fiction/creative nonfiction writer, electronic musician, and literary scholar as it is the product of an avid traveler, lifetime gamer, hypertext creator, and conceptual artist. This memoir is the product of choose-your-own-adventure novels and to RPG/action video games but it is consciously and unconsciously responding to those media too in many different ways. Just to give you one example. At the end of each chapter in Dream Pop Origami, readers get to pick the next chapter like this:


  1. To see Jackson going through culture shock, go to page 62.
  2. The Tower Records in the East Village was church and the coffee table books were the hymn books of pop culture, all on page 239.
  3. To read about the first time an Argentine boy stole Jackson’s cell phone, go to page 34. 
  4. Or just turn the page gently and with understanding.

It’s not necessary to have read a choose-your-own-adventure novel, played a video game, or stayed up to date with the most critically acclaimed/experimental works of creative nonfiction in the past thirty years to appreciate this memoir. But if you have, this book will have so many more layers available to you. Ultimately, there’s no wrong way to read Dream Pop Origami and there’s no previous knowledge needed to enjoy it, but there are definitely rewards for readers who can see the other discourses that this book is part of and also responding to.

Dream Pop Origami: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Clay Harmon

Power dynamics in relationships always have the capacity for drama… but what happens when some of that power is magical? Author Clay Harmon is thinking about this in his Big Idea for Flames of Mira.


Can members of a relationship exist on equal footing when power imbalances exist between both parties? This is one of the questions Flames of Mira seeks to explore. Ig, our main character, is bound to several chemical elements (think the periodic table) which lets him dodge the blades of his enemies, break through walls of rock, and coat his arms in lava. But despite all his power, he’s bound to obey the magically-enforced orders of the people he works for.

While the power he wields makes for some dazzling fight scenes, I found myself more interested in Ig’s powerlessness at the hands of those he’s bound to and the dynamics this can create. It was an opportunity to explore various relationships someone in Ig’s position might find himself in, whether they be healthy or extremely toxic, and it brought into focus a theme of power dynamics and how a skewed power balance in a relationship can cause it to become toxic in nature.

Constructing and responsibly navigating the relationships I wanted to include in Flames of Mira was a delicate process that was important to get right, given how damaging unhealthy power dynamics can become. The first question I asked myself while writing Ig was how his behavior might change as a participant in a power-skewed relationship over the course of several years.

He employs various strategies to deal with this, whether he’s falling into a tenuous coexistence or becoming friends with the people he serves, with only the occasional, painful reminder of the power imbalance that exists between them. Over time, this leads to a mental health crisis as he starts to wonder if he’s become friendly with these people so he can cope with the futility of escaping. The power he has—the ability to control the elements—makes him uncomfortable, and he starts to believe that over time, his mere existence damages the healthy relationships in his life.

As the story progressed, it created another opportunity to explore power imbalances but within romantic relationships. What happens when you become codependent in a relationship where your partner holds all the power? In this situation, Ig develops an impaired sense of power and feels that his purpose in life is to help his partner achieve their goals, thinking that his own wants and desires aren’t important.

This relationship is so dysfunctional that it results in Ig’s warped rationalizations for his partner’s actions, such as tricking himself into thinking he’s in love or believing he can change their nature. He comes to have an overblown idea of the influence he’s capable of exerting, to the point he thinks he is solely responsible for his partner’s wellbeing and happiness.

This exploration of the inherent toxicity in Flames of Mira’s romantic subplot served as an opportunity to write the reversal of the popular enemies-to-lovers trope, which pushed me outside my comfort zone as a writer since I hadn’t read many books with a lovers-to-enemies story to use as guideposts. This trope fit perfectly within the magic system that binds Ig to those he serves and lent itself to one of Flames of Mira’s central themes.

Ig hopes that the people he serves will change, thinks that he’s the only one who really understands them while refusing to acknowledge the actions they regularly take that reveal their true nature. He believes them when they tell him they’ll stop taking advantage of the power imbalance in the relationship.

Over the course of years Ig has found himself entangled within multiple power-skewed relationships, to the point it will become paramount for him to realize that equality among other participants in these relationships is impossible. Once he does, he will finally experience hope of breaking free.

Flames of Mira: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Athena Scalzi

Late to the Party: Stranger Things Season Two

After totally tearing through season one of Stranger Things, I was eager to start season two. Upon actually starting it, I realized I did watch it when it came out. I had completely forgotten about season two entirely. I thought, “okay, maybe I did watch an episode or two and then quit”, but that wasn’t the case. By the time I reached the end of the season, I remembered I had watched all of it. However, I couldn’t remember what had happened until it already did, so in a way it was like watching it for the first time.

But why had I just completely forgotten about it? The first season seemed so memorable, so why wasn’t the second? Had it been so bad that I forgot it entirely until actively watching it again?

Well, no, actually, it wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t particularly good, either. And not anywhere near as good as the first.

(Warning: Spoilers for season two!)

The second season had all the characters we knew and loved from the first season, but with almost no development from any of them by the end of the second. You’d think after a year passing, they’d all be a little different at least? I’m not saying they have to go through some major revolutionary change that makes their character completely different, but it just felt sort of repetitive to have almost every character acting the exact same way they did throughout the first season.

I will say that Steve is starting to become the man I’ve heard he is from all the memes. He was definitely much less of an immature dickhead, and had a lot of selfless moments where he protected others and even risked his life. Other than him, and slightly Eleven, I wouldn’t say any of the characters really changed at all.

But, there were new characters, so let’s talk about them.

First, there’s Max, the new girl in the group that causes conflict between all the boys. Just like the last girl did. For each of these girls, they were gladly accepted by some party members, and rejected vehemently by the others. And in both cases, the boys got jealous regarding how much the other(s) liked the girl. This seems very true to how children act in real life, but it was hard to watch happen a second time to a different girl. I’m tired of girls being used as a dividing force between boys. Girls being used to make them fight, or be jealous, or get mad at each other. They feel reduced to their roles in this sense.

On the flip side of that, there is a scene where El gets jealous when she sees Max talking to Mike, so a case can be made that the show is not just limiting jealousy to the boys of the show. But it sure feels that way sometimes, especially when you add in Steve’s jealousy regarding Nancy, too. It’s a lot of drama. Which makes sense, because again they’re all kids, trying to figure out their feelings and relationships. But still, it gets old.

As for Billy, he was an asshole older brother character, sure, but he was scary. It’s not every day you see a mean older brother that is more than just obnoxious, and actually manages to instill some level of unsettling feelings in you. He felt… evil. He felt like he was really capable of doing something awful, and I hated that about him, but it made him a good character. And I have never felt so bad for someone so shitty before I saw the scene with him and his dad. Genuinely saddening. I went from despising him to sympathizing for him. Doesn’t give him an excuse to treat Max that way, of course, but damn.

And then we have Bob. He who was surely destined to die. To be the throwaway character the season needed to help advance the plot, nothing more. If it was so obvious that that’s who he was meant to be all along, then why did his death feel so unnecessary? He had made it through the entire lab, all the way to the front doors where everyone else was, and then got got by the demadogs. I know it’s done that way intentionally to make the emotional punch hurt more, but it’s so goofy. He was right there, there was no reason that his death should have happened that way, or happened for nothing. He didn’t do some kind of big sacrifice hero moment, he literally just let his guard down and then got tackled and munched on. It shouldn’t have happened like that. It was sad, though.

I won’t go too in depth about Kali, because I did think she was cool and a good character, but I will say I thought her and her crew’s introduction was odd. To start off the second season with a scene of them, and then not show them again until practically the very end of the season seems like a strange choice. Why would you start the season with them? Starting the episode that features them with that scene seems like the better option to me. I say this mostly because I had forgotten that scene entirely until I saw Kali as a child in the Rainbow Room and then suddenly remembered she existed at all. Just seemed like their introduction to the show could’ve been better timed.

Actually, having an entire episode showing only El and her journey to find Kali was a bold choice for the show to begin with. Does it work when there’s so many other characters’ stories to tell at the same time? Interestingly enough, every episode from season two has an 8.2 star rating on IMDb or higher, except episode seven, which has a 6.1. That’s a significant difference. It’s the outlier of the season both in the construction of the episode, and in ratings.

Moving onto the plot, I was curious what they would do for a second season when El had clearly just beaten the Big Baddy at the end of season one. The answer: they made an even Bigger Baddy. This is not an uncommon thing for shows to do in order to make more seasons, but it has me wondering if this is just what they’ll keep doing for all the following seasons. Making bigger and badder villains until they can’t make them any bigger or any badder.

Speaking of the antagonists, I did respect the fact that they changed the monster from a demogorgon into demodogs. I was glad they didn’t just have the exact same monster being the threat again. The design of the demodogs is, to me at least, less scary than the humanoid demogorgon, but the fact that there’s so many of them makes them far more dangerous than the lone monster from the first season.

This season felt much slower than the first, and part of that is because everything was already established in the first season, so they didn’t have to spend any time in this one telling you backstories, establishing the world and all the characters. There was even one more episode in the second season than the first. But the whole season really seemed to drag. It wasn’t the captivating, edge of your seat show the first season had managed to be.

Again, this season wasn’t bad, and I liked it well enough. Certainly enough that I will be watching the third season. But still, it was lacking, and overall not as interesting or memorable as the first.

Oh, also, one more grievance I had was after everyone escapes the lab full of demodogs and goes back to the Byer’s house, why the hell do they spend what I can only imagine to be at least an hour emptying out the shed and hanging up all those tarps and shit so Will wouldn’t know where he was when THEY COULD’VE JUST BLINDFOLDED HIM. They wasted so much time STAPLING TARPS TO THE WALL when there were demodogs on the fucking loose. If they didn’t want him to know where he was, just make sure he can’t see, you don’t have to disguise your whole fucking shed to talk to him. Ugh.

What did you think of season two? Did you like it better, or not as much? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and have a great day!

Also, on my post over season one, someone commented asking me if I would be interested in doing reviews like these professionally. The answer is yes! I would love to be a professional reviewer, whether it’s over movies, video games, food/restaurants, or even products and services! I love trying and experiencing new things and then talking about it. And I wouldn’t be able to do it if y’all weren’t here to listen, so thank you all for your interest in my reviews. It feels nice to have my thoughts heard, which is why I always want to hear yours in the comments, too, so don’t be shy!


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Chris Gerrib

When robbing a bank becomes too mainstream, try hijacking a spaceship! Author Chris Gerrib tells us a little about how he came up with the idea for his newest thriller, One of Our Spaceships is Missing.


Stories sometimes have more than one Big Idea.  For my latest novel, I had a lot of big ideas.  For this post, I’d like to discuss the two biggest of the Big Ideas.

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared while on a routine night flight from its home base of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  The aircraft was a new Boeing 777, which had (and still has) a very good safety record.  Needless to say, there were a lot of theories as to what had happened.  At the time and while writing the first draft of this novel, I thought it was a hijacking gone bad.

That then was the seed of the first Big idea – a heist novel.  “Hey, gang, let’s steal a spaceship!”  Well, heist stories are thrillers, and so I had an opportunity to play with Standard Thriller Subplots.   And that’s where I got my first Big Idea.

Standard Thriller Subplot #3 is this – hunky, honest and not-terribly bright man is paired with sexy, mysterious and smart (oh, and did I say she was sexy?) woman and asked to investigate something.  Whenever the author needs to pad their wordcount, the two characters have hot sex until the requisite wordcount is reached.  There are subvariants of this – #3A is where the female character is really working for the Bad Guys, #3B is where she used to work for them but now is reformed – you get the picture.

I decided to take this subplot and stand it on its head.  I do have a hunky and not-very-bright male investigator – Ray Volk, Special Agent, FBI.  He’s gay, single and a player – he’s wrapping up a one-night-stand when he gets called to start investigating.  He’s paired with a sexy and to-him mysterious man.  Alas, his partner is not into sex with anybody, male or female.  This opens the door for Standard Thriller Subplot #4 – A Girl In Every Port.  And actually Ray has an opportunity to tick that box; alas he’s not looking for a girl.  

Going back to Malaysia Flight 370, I now think that one of the pilots decided to commit suicide by depressurizing the plane and flying it over the ocean until it ran out of fuel and crashed.  This “suicide by airliner” has happened on several occasions now – Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed because the copilot locked the captain out of the cabin and flew the plane into the ground.  

This was the second Big Idea – spaceship safety.  Germanwings was a classic MIAR – Madman In a Room disaster.  (As far as I know I’ve invented that acronym.)  In the tight confines of an airliner, you might not be able to prevent MIARs.  But on a large passenger ship?  Maybe you could prevent it.

You would need two things – one, dual control, such that critical functions require two people to perform them.  Second, you’d need to ensure that nobody can truly lock themselves in a room.  You’d need a way to bypass the locks.  And wouldn’t having a way to bypass a lock be helpful in hijacking a ship?

As I mentioned in the beginning, I have a lot of Big Ideas in the book.  I’ll just list a couple of them here.

  1. The US now only has 48 states.
  2. We’re not a superpower, at least not in space – Mars is.
  3. The same historical events that caused items #1 and #2 above created a lawless region in our Solar System that’s just perfect for a spaceship to disappear into.

They say science fiction is the fiction of ideas.  I believe that One of Our Spaceships is Missing is an example of that.  I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you have fun reading it!

One of Our Spaceships is Missing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Trent Jamieson

With all things in life, balance is the key. This is also true for author Trent Jamieson’s newest novel, The Stone Road. Follow along with this Big Idea to see how he found balance between novels, and in his own life.


A week after I turned forty, the seventh cranial nerve on the right-hand side of my face was severely damaged by an infection, I literally woke up to a different face in the mirror. I couldn’t speak clearly, I couldn’t blink my right eye, the right side of my face drooped painfully: everything changed. 

I went back to work a couple of days later, and after the tenth person asked me what was wrong, and I mumbled my response for the tenth time (Bell’s Palsy is almost impossible to say when you have it) I sat in the storage cupboard behind the counter at the bookstore where I work and cried.

I’d written five novels in the previous couple of years, and I was exhausted. Everything had been rush, rush, rush, while holding down a day job, and teaching at night. My life was a wreck, and I’d lost the face that I’d known all my life. I needed to slow down. But it’s a risk to slow down. All my books had been fast-paced, rollercoaster rides, that rattled from scene to scene. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to write novels any other way. I wasn’t sure if I slowed down that I would even have a writing career left.

The answer was in my short fiction. Before I ever really thought about writing novels, I had been a short story writer. Bittersweet was my happy place. Slower, more reflective work the kind of material I leaned into. It was the sort of fantasy that I liked to read as well, the Earthsea Books in particular, but I had never been confident enough to bring it into my fiction.

I had been working on a novel based on a short story of mine called Day Boy. It was a dystopian fantasy about a wild kid that worked for a vampire in a small country town. It was a book of grim fathers and violent sons, and the choices we all must make between dark and light. It was epic in a quiet way, it was a heart breaking, and an angry voice shouting defiance. I decided to write it as an episodic novel, building slowly to a wild ending, a sort of violence as dislocating and sudden as losing your face to Bell’s Palsy.

Day Boy was the best book that I had ever written, and people liked it. It even won two Aurealis awards, and was short-listed for a few other prizes.

But I felt it needed another story to balance it. And that balance found itself in The Stone Road. It is a book of grandmothers and granddaughters and the boundaries that they must walk to protect their town. I imagined it in a weirder, wilder part of the Day Boy world, and I wanted it to address the violence at the heart of Day Boy

Like Day Boy, it had begun as a short story, but it went in directions that I had never expected. In Day Boy, the vampires protect people from the monsters that threaten their communities by fighting them, in The Stone Road, Jean and her grandmother must deal with monsters by outsmarting them. It’s a book about community, death and family secrets: a slow burning fire that blazes by the end. 

Both books reflected my bewilderment at life, at the abrupt change I found in the mirror, and both taught me a lot. That there is power in the quiet and the slow, and that resilience isn’t found quickly, and even when it’s found it’s fragile, but we move on. We have to.

It’s been a decade since I got Bells, my face never quite recovered, I have a crooked smile, my right eye waters when I eat, and sometimes the nerve will start ticking in my eyelid or locking up when I am nervous or tired. My body will never let me forget. I wrote these two, quiet books, about community, and fathers and sons, and grandmothers and granddaughters, and I became a father myself. My life is richer, different, but it’s still me. I write for the joy it gives me, no matter how hard writing often is. 

I look back at that sad broken person who started their forties, and I hardly recognise him, but together we took the path into the quiet, slower places, and we’ve done alright. You can tear yourself apart, but you can also put yourself back together again. Maybe that’s a little idea, I don’t know, but it feels big to me.

The Stone Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Will Wiles

Over time, little things can add up. This is the case for empires falling, governments collapsing, and sickness spreading. In Will Wiles’s Big Idea, he goes into detail about how being aware of these little things can lead to big changes. See what changes await in The Last Blade Priest.


Decay, that’s the thing. I wanted to talk about decay. Not physical decay, but the decay of cultures and institutions – an awful creeping fear that the familiar world is crumbling, and might have been crumbling for some time. It was 2016 and I didn’t much like the way the world was going – in the UK, at least, the existing order was fracturing, a rupture that felt quite sudden, but also the result of fault lines that had been growing and rumbling for years. The outlook seemed ominous, but within it were intriguing glints of possibility.

At the time I was reading John Julius Norwich’s immense, wonderful history of Byzantium, and I was struck by how long decline can take, and how it can be interspersed with periods of relative quiet and even recovery in between flashes of irrecoverable disaster. The scenery can appear quite normal, before it falls over with a bang. A character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked how he went bankrupt, and he answers: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” 

You’d think, when an institution is entrusted with a vital responsibility, it would never lose sight of that trust. But it happens all the time, throughout history. Armies become more interested in bribes and kingmaking than defence of their state. Religions sink into luxury, or become hidebound and pedantic and incapable of change. The watchdogs of democracies drift into slumber.

These processes, the workings of decay, fascinated me as an undergraduate student of history, and they fascinate me today. The gears turn, and then – crash. Gradually, then suddenly. Sometimes, the occupants of these systems are unaware of the slow-turning disaster. Sometimes, they are aware, but powerless. Sometimes, it’s their efforts to change course that hasten the final crisis. 

Gloomy thoughts, you might say, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but tremendous narrative. It’s fascinating for a reason, and it’s an underpinning of the Gothic. Decay is, after all, a process of life – the dead whale sinking to the lightless floor of the ocean makes that desert blossom with weird and wonderful creatures. Of course, it’s best enjoyed through the pages of a book, in an armchair in a stable and prosperous society, rather than witnessed in the fabric around us. But reflecting on these things can help us keep alert to the warning signs and the wicked problems.

So, an institution is entrusted with an awesome responsibility. At the heart of the world there is a Mountain, a Mountain completely unlike the mountains around it, with a dreadful ever-shifting countenance that repulses anyone who looks at it too long. Perhaps it’s not a mountain at all, but it is the size of a mountain and among mountains so it is called the Mountain.

The Mountain is the source of all magic in the world, and can grant godlike powers to any person willing to journey to it and strike a bargain with its monstrous protectors. And it has spawned a world religion based on human sacrifice to appease the avian necromancers that guard the Mountain, and a simple mission: ensure that no human ever gives themselves the power of a god. 

Simple. A typical fantasy set-up maybe, a hidden kingdom defending a magical resource of incalculable value. And my earliest outline had a fairly typical approach to the set-up: a questing party, from an upstart nation that doesn’t respect the old ways, aims to penetrate this mountain fastness. The sprawling monastery-fortress of the decadent priests and their monstrous demigods would naturally be the destination of that story, held for the end.

But the more I thought about that rotten religion and its factional battles in a demon-haunted fortress, the more time I wanted to spend there. Why store them up for the end, and then see them only from the outside? Why not spend a little more time with them? 

Moreover, what if some of the priests at the heart of this ancient religion weren’t entirely blind to their decayed state, and had some awareness that the world outside was changing? And, in fact, even the gods realised things had to change? Suddenly there were two stories to tell: the brash, infidel newcomers, and their quest to open up this secret religious kingdom; and the struggle within that religion between reform and tradition.

At the heart – excuse me – of this battle is the question of human sacrifice, an ancient necromantic rite to bind men to their gods, which the gods now say isn’t needed any more. For one of the young priests in training to deliver death to the gods, this comes as a great, secret, relief – but puts him in vastly more danger than he realises. 

This seemed like a great opportunity to get inside some of these questions of decay and renewal, and competing visions of progress in a world gripped by a gathering crisis – but also to have a lot of fun with a story of intrigue, murder, betrayal and human folly. And at the heart – sorry, again – would be the vital question of responsibility, and who gets to wield power, when those best placed to take it are not the ones you’d want using it. 

Also there are abominable snowmen. 

The Last Blade Priest: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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